Call me Ishmael

The opening line of Moby-Dick must be one of the most recognisable in Western literature.  Imagine now that Melville had kept the structure of the sentence but substituted the name for another.

Call me John.

It does’t come anywhere near the impact of the original, does it? Ishmael tells its own story. There is a mystery attached to it, something that prompts us to delve deeper, search for an underlying meaning, both apparent and hidden from view. Whereas John… What could possibly interest us in a plain old John?

That is not to say that there are no Johns of interest to be found in modern literature, however…  Here is a challenge for you. Do you recall a John this very moment?

cardboard-cartoon-character-4-8141594While there are many ways for a writer to miss the mark when it comes to characterisation, it is near impossible for a publisher to make a decision either way without delving a little deeper into the manuscript first.

There are a couple of indicators they will be on the lookout for from the first page: character names. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet perhaps, but get it wrong, and I’m afraid that what our publisher will be sniffing out in-between the lines is the amateur writer.

Why do names matter? First impressions are as important in print as they are in person and the use of clichéd names – the Jacks and Joes, Marys and Sarahs we have come across one hundred times over – will signal to the publisher that they may well be reading a manuscript whose author either lacks the imagination to search out distinctive names for their characters or are themselves of a rather clichéd mentality.

On the other hand it is possible to err in the opposite direction by giving characters in a contemporary setting overly exotic names and this will cause just as much damage. Just think about having to read a novel populated by Grunzilbas and Frantomimons.

While a good plot may carry through characters with ordinary names, a poor plot is unlikely will not be strengthened by the use of character names that – while certainly original – are also difficult to remember and will be a cause of great irritation for whoever attempts to make it past the first few pages.

There is a third problem to add to the mix; what I like to call the Russian syndrome. Say you’ve found an interesting name for your character, which is neither clichéd, nor intrusively exotic. Take “Liese” for example. It is unusual enough to be memorable, but not so unusual as to make it annoying. You’ve even come across a surname that will work well with it… say: “Helling”. You’re off to a good start:

Enter Liese Helling.  

First sentence done, but wait a minute! What’s this? One page later the reader’s head is already spinning. After being introduced to Liese Helling in the first sentence, the next gives them an account of Mrs Helling’s troubled afternoon. Two sentences further and here’s Liesy being reprimanded  by her villainous husband. Then they are witness to Liese’s inner life while she bemoans her fate. Helling gets an urgent call from her children’s school to inform her of a bullying incident and then Ms Liese abandons everything to…

Now imagine that the scene unfolds with another six or seven characters in the room, and that for each of them there are four or five name variants. Instead of having to remember seven or eight names, we have to keep track of forty throughout.

While most readers will keep at it trying to wrap their heads around character names in the great works of one Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, they will be less likely to be as patient when reading a novel by a modern writer. So… It is best to give them time to get used to the character before asking them to remember a Liese Helling’s half dozen appellatives.

The solution to all these problems is a straightforward one:

  1. Research names for you characters. There are plenty of books on names and excellent internet resources too. Choose names that suit them. It is never too early to think of the underlying symbolism of a name; this may help deepen characters and add something else for the reader to delight in.
  2. Make them distinctive enough without making them sound like something out of a Martian encyclopaedia (unless you are writing science fiction, of course, in which case you may have a broader spectrum of names to work with).
  3. Then choose one way to refer to them, your favourite appellative, and stick to it.

Of course… we mustn’t forget to introduce them too. I know, I know. But you’ll be surprised how often it happens: ten pages of fast-paced action and not a character name in sight! There is no point in their having memorable names if the reader does’t get to know them.

Here we step into the realm of characterisation proper. More on this coming soon.